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Bridges, not walls?

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Science  28 Apr 2017:
Vol. 356, Issue 6336, pp. 388-389
DOI: 10.1126/science.356.6336.388

The Rio Grande runs along the U.S.-Mexico border near McAllen, Texas.


Experts at the AAAS Science Diplomacy 2017 conference, representing diverse perspectives regarding the U.S.-Mexico border, urged collaboration between researchers and decision-makers in both countries, and among specialists in a wide range of fields, to manage the region's many complicated and interrelated issues.

“Science and technology can play a role in helping us think beyond one issue area at a time and, more importantly, create solutions that are positive across issue areas, rather than positive in one and negative in another,” said Christopher Wilson, director of the Wilson Center's Mexico Institute, during a conference session entitled “What's in a wall? Security, Economics, Human Rights, and Conservation on the U.S.-Mexico Border.”

All three experts provided vivid descriptions of the complexity of the 2000-mile-long border region, explaining challenges that affect both sides related to water resources, human migration, animal migration, Native American communities, air quality, health, cultural resources, biodiversity, security, pollution, human rights, land ownership and residents' rights, drug trafficking, border violence, trade, and economics.

Steve Young, who was previously with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, emphasized the necessity of cross-border, as well as cross-disciplinary, collaboration.

Young, former co-chair of the Border Indicators Task Force for the U.S.-Mexico Border 2012 Border Environmental Program, worked on the environmental concerns of the region spanning the border and extending 100 kilometers north and south. At the AAAS conference, he extolled the rich history of the area, which includes 26 federally recognized Native American nations within the United States, plus indigenous communities within Mexico. Some of the native people have moved back and forth over the current border while “pursuing their normal life ways” for hundreds and even thousands of years, Young said.

He said formal collaboration on environmental issues in the region dates back at least as far as 1983, during the Reagan administration, when bilateral cooperation was called on to assure healthy air quality, develop appropriate management of hazardous and other waste, and control water-borne pathogens.

“I would argue that it's been a success story,” said Young, “a multidecade success story of mutual cooperation, technical assistance, and financial assistance, and the indicators suggest improvement in a number of environmental areas in spite of all the economic growth that has taken place.”

Such collaboration is especially important, Young said, given climate models for the area, which predict rising temperatures, “megadroughts,” and brief, severe floods. “This is troubling,” Young said. “It means that the border region is going to face a lot of pressure.”

Wilson, who focused on the interrelation of security and economics at the border, pointed out that in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, technological improvements greatly improved the security of the border. Such upgrades allowed border agents to immediately see if crossers had warrants out for their arrest or were on terrorist watch lists. Wilson added that “there's never been a terrorist attack in the United States that involved a crossing from Mexico.”

Immediately after 9/11, however, because of significantly heightened security, border agents searched people and goods coming across the border extensively, and the slowdown nearly closed the border. About a half-trillion dollars worth of goods cross the border each year, Wilson said, 80% of it on land and mostly in trucks. “With that kind of volume,” he said, “a minor slowdown can lead to a shutdown.”

Wilson said evidence shows that the United States and Mexico are losing out on billions of dollars each year because of border congestion. Meanwhile, minor increases in efficiency save money and even improve air quality, because trucks spend less time idling in long lines, he said.

Security issues, Wilson said, need to be addressed in relation to trade and economics, and many positive solutions are being implemented, including “trusted traveler” programs, in which individuals or companies are vetted and certified before crossing the border. Technologies that increase security on both sides of the border, as well as efficiency, include radiation scanners, scales to make sure vehicles' weights are in line with their declared loads, x-ray equipment, document scanners, and biometric scanners for facial and iris recognition. Two methods that hold great promise, Wilson said, are “targeting,” which uses vast stores of data on crossers to assess risk factors, and prevention programs where companies voluntarily allow pre-inspection, securing, and GPS tracking of their cargo at loading sites, making inspection at the border unnecessary.

A sign reads “Protected Federal Wildlife Area” in Sonora State, northern Mexico, just south of Arizona.


Charles Cuvelier, who referred to the wall advocated by President Trump as “part of a suite of solutions” and who works for the U.S. National Park Service as chief of law enforcement, security, and emergency services, said that about 70 countries worldwide have chosen to build border walls. In speaking about the U.S.-Mexico border, he described the risks associated with so-called coyotes, who lead unauthorized border crossers from Mexico into the United States, as well as with drug smugglers. “These folks can be dangerous,” Cuvelier said, referring to confrontations that resulted in the death of one Park Service employee and the assault of another. Cuvelier said coyotes sometimes abandon migrants in the desert, and about 100 migrant deaths occur every year in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and the Tohono O'odham tribal region alone.

Cuvelier said he thinks a drop in illegal immigration over the past decade is at least partly attributable to increased law enforcement. In 1980, there were 2268 border agents, and during the Obama administration, that number grew to 21,730. In 1990, 14 miles of the border were fenced. Between 2009 and 2011, 651 miles of fencing were added, Cuvelier said.

Cuvelier also referred to cross-border fire suppression, water issues, and animal migration concerns related to the building of a wall. About 1 million acres of the border region are federally protected wildlife areas, he said, and threatened and endangered species include Sonoran pronghorn antelopes, Mexican grey wolves, Gila monsters, ocelots, and jaguars. Cuvelier quoted President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who established Big Bend National Park in southwest Texas, and said, “I do not think that this undertaking in the Big Bend will be complete until the entire park area in this region on both sides of the Rio Grande becomes one great international park.”

Referring to the proposed wall, Cuvelier said, “We might end up with a border situation that is not a completely open or a completely closed environment. But how do we best leverage those open and closed opportunities to benefit the United States and potentially our international partners?”

With all three speakers insisting that more and better data related to the complex border situation are necessary, Young expressed hope that science and evidence help determine the future of the region. “Science can play a role in informing the policy-making and the decision-making, I hope.”

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